Things I Got Instead of Money When I Interned at Summer Camp

I interned at a Girl Scout camp during my summer after high school graduation. It had been my camp, where I’d gone every summer since I was 10. My official title was “apprentice,” which was basically a fancy conciliatory name for those of us who had completed the Counselor-in-Training program the summer before, but were 17, and therefore, too young to be hired. My duties as an apprentice were exactly the same as regular staff, only I didn’t count as coverage. Coverage is the ratio of staff to campers needed at all times, and it is a Big Deal. Not counting as coverage essentially meant I could never be left alone with campers, which was frustrating. But I learned a lot about working through frustration, working with children, working with my fellow staff, and especially how it feels to work for free.

This last lesson was so clear only because I worked just as hard as everyone else at camp—I dealt with the same homesick campers, spider catching duty, hikes to archery and hours at the pool—with 100 percent less pay. I found out that it was easy to put my blood (literally), sweat (so much), and tears (oh, lordy) into a job without the “reward” of a paycheck. In the years since, I’ve discovered that the ease with which I freely forgo adequate compensation is not always to my benefit. Not everyone is foolish enough to work a difficult job for free, but here are some of the nonmonetary compensations of that summer:

1. I learned about how decisions can be made for one reason, and followed through for another. I dealt with the apprentice title at camp that summer because I figured, hey, even though I wouldn’t get paid, I also wouldn’t be paying for room or board for a whole two months. (Conveniently, I ignored the fact that if I wasn’t at camp, my parents would be paying for those things, so the difference to me was exactly zero). This was my official justification, but really I just freaking loved camp and kids, and no way was I skipping a summer.

2. I learned how to give and receive professional evaluations with supervisors, and especially ways to approach and deal with critical feedback. This has continued to be one of the most valuable things I’ve ever learned. Living in a large community of women operating on a chronic lack of sleep for two months? Yeah, gets a little tense sometimes. Feedback is the bessttttt. But it only works when given in a way that doesn’t shut people down, and that’s a really important life skill. I love getting feedback—it’s like a little tap on the shoulder that tells you how to be more useful and less annoying to others. And then everyone gets along better! It’s like magic, or something. I’ve used these skills with crazy roommates and sisters and crazier roommates. And professionally, too, of course.

3. I reached my own limits of both energy and patience. Again. And again. This doesn’t sound like a good thing, but it’s only once you’ve been there a couple of times—at the end of your rope and a few feet past besides—that you learn how to deal with it and, more importantly, to recognize the warning signs. I figured out when I needed to remove myself from other people so that I could clear my head, and avoid situations I would surely regret. For me, that meant heading into the walk-in freezer for a literal chilling out sesh. And some ice cream.

4. I got comfortable leading and teaching groups, even with minimal preparation. Being a camp counselor is all about being in front of other people—leading songs, crazy games, archery etc. Sometimes you know what you’re talking about, and sometimes you make it up completely, but it all happens in an intense spotlight of camper attention. Seriously, they see everything. This was terrifying for me. Sometimes it still is. But I learned how to function within that framework, and even embrace it. It’s a really good feeling when your campers are bragging about how much they loved a game without knowing that you made it up in 20 seconds because pool time was cancelled. I learned how to be confident and articulate (or at least pretend to be so) in front of large groups, and this is definitely a useful life skill, if ever there was.

5. I got a head start on the whole first-time-you-get-to-invent-yourself-to-people-who’ve-never-met-you situation that most people don’t experience until college. In my case, it was more of a discovery of self rather than an invention of self. It was my first extended existence away from family and among people who really didn’t know me, so I got to really meet others on my own terms, without those prior impressions and judgments that haunt you throughout school. And camp is this weird magical place where you become friends with people you’d never talk with in real life. Everyone just gets down in the mountain dirt and down to a (truer) version of themselves.

I got a lot out of that apprentice summer, and if given the option, I’d do it all over again. If given the option plus a paycheck, I would most definitely do it all over again. I actually did, too—almost every summer through college I could be found there; sunburned, tired, and enjoying every paid minute. This cringe worthy quote from my own journal during that first summer perhaps best sums up the reason I was back there every summer: “I want to just live at camp forever where everything makes sense and I get to be as real as I’ve ever been in my life!”


L. Matteson’s best made-up game involved a hula hoop, three clothespins, and some bandanas, not that she’s bragging. She’s currently in the process of figuring out what happens next.



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